“The Limit Does Not Exist:” Mean Girls and the Future of Ungrading

Image ID: A photo of the cast of Mean Girls wearing pink.

“On Wednesdays we wear pink.”
Karen Smith

A few years ago, I wandered into the ungrading conversation on Twitter looking for people to sit with and talk to about things I was trying and learning more about things that others were doing, especially since, locally, the opportunity for connected conversations didn’t really exist.  I know that when I started tinkering around with ungrading that there were people who I could look to for support, even if I didn’t quite know who they were yet.  Like the first day in a high school cafeteria, the sheer volume of the conversation was intimidating and the things I didn’t know I didn’t know loomed large, especially the politics of the space.  It’s hard knowing where you can sit and where you can’t and what we wear on Wednesdays because, even tacitly, you know there ate tiers and territories, but the exact boundaries are nebulous.  You only find out where the actual boundaries are when you cross them, which is safer for some than others.

The recent conflict about who is really ungrading is at least in part about saying overtly what was only gestured to in the past: there are tiers, cliques, fences, and walls around who can sit at the “top table.”  There’s an in group and an out group and being in the in group requires wearing pink on Wednesdays, but you must know to wear pink on Wednesdays, among other things.  You have to look a certain way, sound a certain way, act a certain way.  You can’t keep trying to make fetch happen. The unwritten rules are just being formalized and codified now.

I was rereading part of Jack Halberstam’s The Queer Art of Failure a few days ago (actually, his use of “low theory” was inspirational here), and there’s an interesting question near the front: “Do we really want to shore up the ragged boundaries of our shared interests and intellectual communities, or might we rather take the opportunity to rethink the project of learning and thinking altogether?”

That’s a big existential question, but if we are genuinely interested in using this moment for rethinking the project altogether, what does that really mean?  What would that genuinely require?

“I wish we could all get along like we used to in middle school. I wish I could bake a cake filled with rainbows and smiles and everyone would eat and be happy.”
Girl Who Doesn’t Go to the School

We often try to rely on imagined pasts to make future decisions, and much to our detriment.  Relying on imagined pasts causes us to recreate them, only this time a little bit more nicely.  There’s no history of cakes filled with rainbows and smiles here, and there are some long legacies of gatekeeping because of those materially benefitting from being the “right” side of the gate. Gretchen, Karen, and Regina understood this deeply, and their rituals of control—formal and informal—were a consolidation of power.  I get the sense sometimes from the head table that there’s just too many people here now and remember the good old days when this was our niche.  All of this is a long way of saying that rethinking the project altogether, as Halberstam says, requires people who have power to cede some of it and to ensure that those that ungrading have been actively excluded from ungrading conversations are actively included.  Even Regina, Karen, Gretchen learned that Janis had something meaningful to say, too.

I want to return to the Queer Art of Failure for a second where Halberstam writes, “I propose the goal is to lose one’s ways, and indeed to be prepared to lose more than their way.”  Large-scale shifts in the Narrative are challenging and disorienting, but they’re also necessary.  There are things that we;’ve gotten too certain of and that have become fossilized as kinds of ungrading’s cultural common sense.  Rather than making the circle smaller and steeling our commitments to logics of orderliness (“here’s the right way!”), a period of nostalgia-defying disorder might be required to lose our way and more than our way.

In other words, if ungrading in our classrooms isn’t about saviorism, ungrading itself and those attempting to do some version of it under adverse conditions don’t need saviors either.  The “tsk tsk” doesn’t feel great.

“Grool. I meant to say cool but then I started to say great.” 
Cady Heron

I’ve invoked Halberstam here a couple of times, so I want to talk a little about failure.

I’m a failed ungrader (among other things).  I’ve tried different practices, developed variations on existing practices, and tried to be responsive to the reactionary cultures of where I worked and the expressed needs of my students, so none of my practices would pass an ideological purity test.  I suspect I’m not the only one.  I don’t want to turn this into some saccharine “failure is okay!” classroom poster, but I’m proud of failing.  I’d hate to think about where I’d be without it because I’d probably also be stuck in the loop of the places I worked.  

Be Oakley and Noah LeBein write, “Failure is a project,” and Halberstam writes, “Failure allows us to escape the punishing norms that discipline behavior and manage human development with the goal of delivering unruly childhoods and predictable adulthoods.”   I’ve said elsewhere that ungrading isn’t about mastery of a specific set of tasks or meeting a single standard, but it is about processing values and becoming comfortable with acting on those values.  The process really is more important than the product.  There’s something to be said for reveling in the mess, and I think more of it might be required.  Maybe we need to talk about failure together more?  Returning to Oakley and LeBein, “In failure, I discover…how to embrace the failures of others, to hold it in and make it my own.”  Fred Moten talks about the wealth of sharing needs rather than solving problems, which might be a good idea, too.

These statements get some pushback, but, for me anyway, failure has been a critical part of my identity and my survival, if I’m being honest.

“I’m sorry that people are so jealous of me, but I can’t help it that I’m popular.” 
Gretchen Wieners

I’m hanging out with Janis and Damian, but the question in conversations that circle around complex, intersectional, messy questions of access and power is what are those at the top table willing to give up?  What doors are they willing to open behind them so that more people—especially those most silenced—can walk through?  There’s people that have really helped me and students in ways that probably kept in the classroom a lot longer than I might have otherwise been.

It’s easy to read some of this as jealousy or sour grapes or grievance politics or whatever else, but I don’t read the calls for more openness and access as desire for clout or popularity or fame, but a desire for some parity of participation in the conversation around ungrading.  It doesn’t seem to be about being at the head table, but it does seem to be about a more polyvocal conversation.  Who are we missing, intentionally or unintentionally, and how does their absence that hurt all of us?  Who is screaming into the abyss, and how can we listen to them?  How can this lead to generative conflict and principled struggle rather than just conflict?

Stop “Assuming Positive Intent”

Image ID: A red traffic light against a cloudless blue sky.

Since the start of the school year is here, the tweets from districts and leaders about their values for the year are here, too. A common thread in many of these tweets is some form of the phrase “assume positive intent,” which is generally designed to be a banal, inoffensive way to talk about belonging or inclusion.  At best, “assume positive intent” is kind of boilerplate corporate eduspeak, but, at worst, the phrase stands in the way of the generative conflict and accountability schools and districts need to foster equity, justice, and belonging.    

“Assume positive intent” is an example of what Paul Gorksi calls an “equity detour,” an action taken to divert attention, resources, and sustained commitment to justice.  It allows us to stay “clean,” by avoiding questions about our own beliefs and actions and the beliefs and actions of the systems in which we operate.  “Assume positive intent” is an example of Gorski’s first detour: “pacing for privilege.”  In this detour, the feelings and needs of those least committed to equity and justice over those who are directly harmed by inequity and injustice.  “Assume positive intent” allows us, individually and systemically, to gloss over harmful actions, practices, and policies without naming them as harmful; it privileges the intent of the actor, not how the action, practice, or policy impacts people.  Put differently, meaning well isn’t enough; we must commit to doing well, and “assume positive intent” discourages that because there’s never any real accountability.  “Assume positive intent” creates a context where equity and justice are individually and collectively optional rather than required.  The list of harmful policies and practices implemented and supported because of “good intentions”—“responsibility rooms,” culturally unresponsive curriculum, traditional grading—is bottomless.

Accountability is an important component of systems that prioritize equity and justice, and “assume positive intent” allows people and systems to avoid taking it.  When we “assume positive intent,” there’s always plausible deniability for harm.  “I didn’t know” or “I meant something else” impede our ability to own the harm caused, make a genuine apology, and take actions to make that harm less possible in the future.  I’m grateful for Maha Bali and Mia Zamora’s words here, too, about making schools and classrooms intentionally equitably hospitable: “I didn’t know” is an insufficient response to systemic injustice or partial care.  Doing better is required.  In other words, accountability isn’t about—or shouldn’t be about—punishment, but it is about transforming ourselves and the systems that we’re in. 

Mariame Kaba, invoking Shannon Perez-Darby, says that accountability is “a process that we do with ourselves for ourselves.  When we’re being accountable to ourselves, we’re acting in a way that honors our values.  We’re acting with integrity by taking responsibility for who we are in the world and living in alignment with our values.”  If someone is harmed and then we ask the harmed person to “assume positive intent,” who is being seen, heard, and valued?  Who is accountable, and to what?  In a school setting, when teachers act in ways that harm students, students should not be asked to be the burden of “assuming positive intent” to make the problem go away for the powers that be.  Instead, we need to ask the person committing the harm to be accountable; someone was harmed, whether that was the intent or not.

This raises the issue of generative conflict, which is required for us to grow toward equity and justice personally and systemically.  “Assume positive intent” is a silencing mechanism that avoids conflict—and its possible fallout—at all costs. Again, the goal of the leaders using this term is to stay “clean.”  One of the major ways that “assume positive intent” avoids conflict is by seeing each instance of harm as a separate individual issue rather than as part of larger systems and structures that make harm possible.  Put differently, “assume positive intent” allows the “one bad apple” theory to thrive; it seems harm as an individual problem rather than seeing the systems that prop up, support, enable, and even elevate the harmer and others like them.  While individuals taking accountability for harm is important, it is as—if not more—important for systems, structures, and organizations to take accountability for their harm and work to permanently eradicate that harm.  Systemic solutions are generally preferable to individual solutions.   This is not a statement that people can’t grow and change, they absolutely can, but “assuming positive intent” isn’t a path forward to that growth.  If we’re truly committed to equity and justice, we can’t blame the victim and change the subject when harm occurs.  It’s time to get messy.

I want to make a quick distinction here between “assuming positive intent” and the concept of “unconditional positive regard,” which Alex Shevrin Venet writes about.  These are not the same: unconditional positive regard asks us to care for all those in our orbit relationally and building relationships with them not out of a transactional need, but a desire to genuinely connect with them.  The desire to stay in relationship and care for those in our organizations is powerful; accountability is not about exile, but about being in—and remaining in—community.  This is challenging work, especially since this isn’t our default mode of operation.  “Assuming positive intent” is different because it ignores the power plays at work and asks victims of harm to sweep their feelings away to avoid conflict and difficult conversations about equity and justice.

If you’re a leader, there’s still time to rethink your messaging and your values before this year starts.  Instead of “assuming positive intent,” let’s lean back into generative conflict and the equity and justice work that’s in line with equity and justice values.  Help your people and systems be accountable to grow, change, and evolve to be safer for everyone. 

No detours, no distractions, no diversions.

Ungrading and Saviorism

first-aid-gce2f88335_1920In my previous role as an instructional coach and a department chair, I felt strongly about advocating for grading reform, especially given the multiple ongoing crises impacting students.  My students spoke openly about the negative effects of grading on their mental health, and a few even worked on a grading reform project that surveyed their peers and made recommendations to experts based on research they’ve done about alternative methods.  Unsurprisingly, the resistance was fierce, and some of the fiercest resistance was around whether ungraded classrooms could prepare students for the rigorous expectations of college professors and corporate bosses.  One colleague even said that ungrading encourages students to “want something for nothing,” as he vigorously defended traditional grading as way to instill notions of capitalist accountability, which he saw as vital to the work of schooling.  Ungrading was just a fancy name for low expectations.

I started taking steps toward ungrading about a decade ago because grades negatively impacted my relationships with students and students’ relationships with their work in the course.  While I’d encourage students to take risks in their work in ideas, genre, and form, my reliance on traditional grading sent a different message.  After all, we are what we do.  Because of the mixed messages, students often took the surest path to an “A,” even when they were encouraged to do more.  Who can blame them?  Over time, I grew resentful that students played it safe, and they were resentful that my words seem disingenuous based on my actions.  This mutual frustration wasn’t sustainable, especially if I was going to stay in teaching.

This story isn’t unique—I’ve told it before, and it probably mirrors the origin story of many other ungraders—but lifting again feels critical to make the point that, for me, ungrading wasn’t about what students couldn’t do, but what they could do when they weren’t, as Alfie Kohn says, punished by rewards.  Put differently, I turned to ungrading because I had higher expectations—not lower expectations—for both my teaching and my students’ learning.  One of my biggest realizations about traditional grading was how just how much pushing students toward a single standard that I created based on preferences, experiences, and ways of knowing was rooted in pervasive deficit orientations.

Problematically, deficit orientations combined with good intentions—“preparing students for college” “upholding standards”—is saviorism (Alex Shevrin Venet’s work is vital on this topic, especially for white teachers).  Part of my moving away from saviorism and restoring my relationship with students on healthier terms required me to also move away from traditional grading.  Imagine thinking so highly of yourself and so little of your students that you believed their only motivation is points.  This is, at least in some circles, and prevailing view, and to borrow from Jesse Stommel, if we believe that students need a reason as banal as points to do our work, then they’ll likely believe it, too.  For me, breaking up with traditional grading meant breaking up with my ego, and it made me a better teacher by compelling me to, with students, consider reasons for our work together that pushed beyond banal point accumulation; we leaned into purpose, into mission, into values, and into imagination and world building.  I had to listen, to be wrong, to be apologize, to repair harm I had caused, and to change my actions.

There are some things to acknowledge here: ungrading, like anything, can also be a weapon that causes harm (we might think of Autumm Caines’ work on the weaponization of care as an example); sometimes ungrading can also cross into savorism, especially if the shift isn’t rooted in high expectations or accompanied by changes to the pernicious pedagogies underlying traditional grading.  In other words, simply “going pointless” tomorrow isn’t going to change much at all, maybe except the window dressing.  We can ungrade and still find ourselves complicit with grading when our philosophies and core values are still doggedly rooted in compliance, command, and control, our practices still compel students to perform to a single standard, and our personal interactions with students lack relational care and are abundant in what Cornelius Minor calls “deservedness.”   Jesse Stommel, as usual, tells us what we might need to hear: “We can’t simply take away grades without re-examining all of our pedagogical approaches, and this work looks different for each teacher, in each context, and with each group of students.”  Jesse warns us to beware of the Zeitgeist.

There’s nothing particularly heroic or sexy about ungrading; it’s comprised of small-yet-intentional changes—what we might call “micro-moves”—over an entire career to make learning environments more humanizing and relationally caring.  There’s no seismic shift, shining spotlight, grand pronouncement, or enduring fame, and that’s okay.  I just wanted better relationships with students and students wanted to have more freedom, so I had to figure out, in my classroom, how to make that happen, and I’m ever grateful for a network of people that helped—and continue to help—me, whether they know it or not.  I hope that the might help someone else in the same way I’ve been helped.  Each time we model just practices and relational care, help create conditions for students to feel safe taking intellectual risks, or see students advocate against harmful systems and structures, especially those based on flawed foundations like rigor, accountability, ranking, sorting, and exclusion, we’re pushing against the traditional system, urgently, even if it might feel like we’re moving in slow-motion.

Ungrading doesn’t make you a savior, but, if you’re like me, it might stop you from trying to be one.

Meeting the Moment: Equity and Care at the Crossroads

Last week, Maha Bali and Mia Zamora gave an incredible keynote on the intersections—or lack of intersections—of equity and care in our learning and community spaces.  The crowdsourced talk was a meditation on what happens when we one exists without the other—when we have equity without care or care without equity—and the answers aren’t great.  One of the most powerful slides in the keynote was an equity-care framework that works to uncover what happens when the relationships between equity and care aren’t symbiotic:

I’ve been grappling with the equity-care dynamic in the spaces that I’m in for a long time without much success.  Since virtual learning started back in March, my questions have become more insistent and persistent about the work we’re doing and how we’re doing it in classrooms, schools, and districts.  Prior to Maha and Mia’s keynote, I haven’t really found anything that allowed me to say much about what I thought was happening in the spaces I’m in on a day-to-day basis, so I’m really grateful to them for giving us some vocabulary to talk meaningfully about what we’re seeing.

From my perspective, there’s a strong focus on equity, its presence is undeniable and there are people doing the hard work to ensure the rhetoric matches the reality even if that promise remains distant, but the work around building a culture of care is more sporadic, episodic, and misunderstood.  In other words, my space is one of emergent equity and nascent care.  In some ways, this isn’t surprising. The backlash to care is somewhat predictable at this point:

  1. We need to prepare students for the so-called “real world,” and being “soft” isn’t going to steel them for what’s next.  If we’re talking about adult care, we assume that professional life really doesn’t contain care, which is both a systemic problem and an institutional one.  Sometimes the lack of care shown to teachers finds its way into how teachers treat students.
  2. The common refrain of “I’m not a babysitter,” a phrase which got a lot of use when schools were trying to decide how to handle the fall.  The problematic racialized, gendered denigration of the labor reveals why care fails to take root: many seem to think it’s just not that important.  The idea that “babysitter” is pejorative and takes away from the other parts of work is an interesting assumption that speaks to why care is so difficult to enact and why it generates so much resistance when enacted.
  3. Care can’t be quantified or measured by any traditional metric, which makes it difficult to square with an institutional desire for quantitative data.  Doing the long, slow work of care can seem “unproductive” by traditional measures, and it can seem, much like “babysitting” above, that it’s taking away from the “real” (academic) work of school.

Maybe it’s worth pausing here to define care, at least as I see it.  My definitions of care come from Press Press’ Sanctuary Manifesto and Be Oakley’s take on it in Radical Softness as a Boundless Form of Resistance.  In both cases, there is an emphasis on making space for marginalized folx to design and enact sanctuary for their own comfort rather for the comfort of those in dominant positions, as Oakley makes the point that spaces marked “safe” by privileged people might not be.  They write:

The premise of inviting people to define sanctuary for themselves allows for folks to dictate the terms of what spaces can be safe for them.  In building up these places of sanctuary, they may or may not be a physical site, communities dictate their own parameters for these spaces.  These spaces become places of resistance where radical softness is practiced, nurtured and multiplied on their own terms.

In the equity-care matrix, equity without care is defined by “tokenism” or by the idea of “diversity theatre,” initiatives that look good for cameras and on pamphlets, but that aren’t rooted in the very careful, deliberative work of building the trust-filled relationships on which care depends.  One of the things that drew me into Gholdy Muhammad’s Cultivating Genius so deeply was her insistence throughout the book on prioritizing care before anything else:

Before we get to the curriculum and standards, our students need to know that they are loved.  bell hooks said that love is always knowing that we belong.  But we don’t just need love, but a critical love that works to disrupt and dismantle oppression.

Without care or critical love, equity can easily get distilled to a box-checking exercise rather than a commitment to rethinking how we teach and how we live our lives, especially if we inhabit privileged identities. I have a colleague who uses the phrase “love to understanding” to talk about relationships with students, and it’s brilliant and difficult.  I see this happen somewhat frequently in our line of work: having an inclusive classroom library is important, building a representative curriculum that everyone can access is critical, but if our relationships with students are still rooted in command-and-control power dynamics or we don’t have the knowledge to meaningfully facilitate conversations around students’ identities and sociopolitical realities in our class, we really haven’t instituted care as much as we’ve performed a role.  Putting a picture of a Black mathematician on the wall is good and important, but not if your pedagogies remain such that students don’t aren’t safe or cared for within that space.  The discussions and chats, particularly on Twitter, get caught in the equity-care asymmetry sometimes.  In a tweet from Maha and Mia’s keynote, Cate Denial puts it better than I can:

Equity without care reduces structural changes to a set of technocratic procedures or a blunt-force outcome that doesn’t consider the actual human beings impacted.  Equity without care can make the very people we’re trying to build with seem wholly abstract.  This happens a lot in schools: programmatic needs win out over people needs.  Kids before content is something we’ve been hearing about lately, and it may seem like a saccharine slogan, but there’s something to it. I’ve seen it on Twitter, I’ve heard my principal say it, I’ve heard some colleagues say it, and so we’ll have to take some time in our own reflections, with our departments and schools, and in our districts to determine what and how that means in our contexts.  This work is both urgent and ongoing; it is both immediate and always.

One issue at the forefront for me is the ways in which we put marginalized students into various equity-minded programs that don’t account for their safety or well-being, which sometimes happens because of a savior mentality and other times because we care more about the data students produce than the students themselves.  This also becomes true when we tie ourselves to standard grading and assessment mechanisms that are largely defective; we become so tied to a system or a program that the numbers mean more than the person behind those numbers because there are real lives at stake right now: students are isolated, depressed, angry, tired, and simply doing everything they can to do another day on Zoom.  Punitive grading isn’t going help.  This means that a large part of the intersection between care and equity means letting students make the important decisions about the spaces they are in and why; it’s about them telling us what they need, not us telling them what they need.  If we’re honest, students are going to do work in classes where they feel affirmed and cared for, but they’ll check out of spaces where content and control seem to matter more than they do.  As Maha and Mia say in their keynote, “maybe someone needs care more than apples today.” 

Maybe a student needs care more than math or science or English or social studies today, too.  Care doesn’t alleviate the need for students to learn important skills, but it does make more learning possible for more students. We learn when we are safe, comfortable, and cared for.

Working with students and our larger communities to determine what care means in our different contexts is really important because care can come under fire.  Care is an act of resistance, and resistance means its counterforces.  Our advocacy needs to be ready when that happens, and our core values need to meet the moment.  When we sit down to determine how and why our environments are or aren’t caring, we rarely have a discussion about our core values–sometimes we don’t know them, and sometimes they’re difficult to dig up and confront–so we try to build systems, programs, schemes, and initiatives instead. From where I sit, there isn’t a way to “programmatize” care: we’re can’t set up elaborate systems of extrinsic reward and think that the homework pass or the t-shirt make students feel like we care about them.  No amount of what Jerry Muller calls “metric fixation” is digging us out or bringing us together. Incentives can’t replace the difficult and diligent work of care.

I’ve often wondered what might happen if teachers saw themselves more as community organizers first and content experts second.  Community organizers, more than any group of people, know the value of personal relationships built over a long series of trust-building interactions, they know what happens when people feel safe and trusted, and, maybe most importantly, they know the value of small victories. This is what some of Marshall Ganz’s and adrienne maree brown’s best work is about.  Great community organizers don’t worry too much about metrics, but they definitely understand scale: we have to start small to dream big.

Care happens at granular, individual levels; it’s enacted in small, personal ways that add up.  The responsibility of care is heavy—it’s on our shoulders to enact or to refuse—and that’s scary because it’s immeasurably different, requires sacrifice of control and content, and a rearranging of core priorities, but care is the work of sanctuary, and sanctuary is what students are telling us they need now more than ever.

We can only meet this moment of danger, uncertainty, hate, and chaos with care; we won’t meet it with cruelty.

On Talking to Students: Writing Centers, “Cop Shit,” and Sanctuary Spaces


“Cop Shit Doesn’t Build Community”

In his keynote at Digitial Pedagogy Lab 2020, Jesse Stommel said:

There has been much talk over the last several months about maintaining ‘continuity’ of instruction and assessment, but less discussion about how we maintain the communities at the heart of our educational institutions.  That is the design challenge before us.

A few months ago, also using Stommel’s work, I set out to document some issues with schools and districts near-religious devotions to the LMS of their choice: the primary goal, the foundational entry point, seemed to be control and compliance—students turning in assignments—rather than anything related to their critical care.  Additionally, little attempt was made to build the LMS in a way that supported all of connective tissue of schools, which largely happen outside of strict structures, including the classroom itself.  When policing exceeds critical care and collaborative community building and sustenance as a core value, you get what Jeffrey Moro calls “cop shit,” which I was happy to see in Stommel’s keynote.  From Moro:

Cop shit undoubtedly reaches its sine qua non in the K-12 classroom, particularly given how such classrooms are even more militarized (actual cops, metal detectors, education premised on compliance, etc.) than higher ed. While I was getting my hair cut yesterday, my stylist told me about her daughter’s math teacher, who is currently punishing her daughter for falling behind on work due to a broken arm by assigning her upwards of fifteen pages of homework a night. The child is seven. This is pure, uncut cop shit.

Before we say that this story is an exception to the rule, there was a recent Twitter thread that attempted to grapple with the excitement many teachers felt now that “accountability” was coming back this fall: grades, synchronous class time, attendance.  “Cop shit” is one thing that we can count on trickling down.  It’s hard to see some colleagues rely on these measures in their teaching; they need control—bodily control—of their students to be able to engage them in learning.  The “online learning doesn’t work” choruses have roots here: if learning is directly mediated by an adult presence enforcing rules, then it’s not really learning.  This spring, some folks found out that their classroom communities were really just loose confederations held together by rules that kids were too scared to break or say anything about out of fear.  Those loose confederations certainly weren’t co-created with students, especially those students pushed to the margins of our schools.

Long story short: it’s only a matter of time until etiquette “tutorials” like the one below are all over the socials setting up systems to hurt those who are already marginalized and vulnerable.

There’s also reason to be worried that a hyperfocus on content, especially given the narrative that “kids are falling behind,” will cause us to rush in and leave the work of critical care behind: there will still be time for teaching students to write a claim or assess rhetoric or analyze evidence.  Manufactured crises, like the idea of “being behind,” takes our eyes off the really, really important work of cultivating hope and providing safety.  I’m seeing this happen in the writing center sphere where there are webinars about synchronous and asynchronous tutoring or developing online tutor training and almost nothing about how we’re prioritizing care and helping our students build sanctuary spaces, as students continue to navigate a global health crisis, ongoing racism and state violence, ICE deportations, anti-Semitism, and mounting economic losses.  If your writing center is worried about being online but hasn’t yet addressed the multiple threats to the most vulnerable students, I’d argue that you’re thinking in reverse.  I’d also say that I don’t necessarily care about the former until we address the latter.  Here’s Sean Michael Morris’ take:

Rather than connectedness, administrators and instructors (and those supporting their work) have focused on connectivity, worrying more about the technology they use than the human being they are trying to reach.

He later writes:

But it goes without saying that sustaining a classroom community is an essential act during a time of crisis. It is in crisis that we most immediately front with our human capacity to intervene, to grasp our agency—to be learners. When we are faced with feeling there is nothing we can do, we can ask: what has been done, what could have been done… which leads us to ask what can I do, and what will I do?

We’re so worried about the how—we’re desperately looking for the model or that tech trick—that we’re forgetting the who.  This doesn’t necessarily come from a bad place, but the end results of this thinking can be dangerous for those who are already in danger.

So, back to Stommel’s keynote and, arguably, his best piece of advice:

Stop looking for models and begin by talking to students.

On Sanctuary: Writing Centers and a Pedagogy of Critical Care

I’ve been thinking about the idea of sanctuary for a long time, although not always in those terms, but I knew it was important for any kind of learning environment.  I first started attaching the word sanctuary to how and what I was feeling after reading Be Oakley’s “Radical Softness is Boundless Form of Resistance:”

I look to the sanctuary that are built within each of our communities that provide a certain aspect of comfort for the people directly involved with them.

When I first started out teaching and leading a writing center, I thought that I was responsible for setting up a sanctuary, and no doubt that my voice and presence matter, but I realized that unless students co-created the environments with me, I wasn’t really creating a sanctuary, I was creating my idea of what I thought a sanctuary should be.  That’s some cop shit; I’m not at the center of the classroom or the writing center, and the faster I realized that, the better off everyone would be, particularly those that don’t share in all of my privileged identities.  Here’s Oakley:

I don’t feel that any space marked ‘safe’ by a white person, even if they have the best intentions, can ever be truly safe for those who are not white.

Oakley goes on to say that this doesn’t mean white people don’t have a gigantic role to play in making spaces safer, but that we should ask those most impacted what sanctuary looks like, feels like, and is to them.  As Press Press’ sanctuary manifesto says:

Sanctuary is different for different people.  Whatever version of sanctuary we create needs to be malleable and accommodating of those different versions.  Many versions of sanctuary can exist simultaneously.

I read this to mean that our role, before we can even think about pedagogical models or the latest LMS hack or our digital tutoring methods, is to talk with our students and have our students talk with each other about what sanctuary looks like for them and find ways to meaningfully link those visions together, which means embracing tension.  If our students aren’t co-creating the space, virtual or physical, with us, then we’re just reinforcing the cop shit because, as Moro says, we’re setting up a necessarily adversarial relationship with and between our students rather than a generative one.

Avoiding the reproduction of the things we seek to avoid requires a heaping helping of imagination and critical care.  In her OLC Innovate keynote, Maha Bali argues for:

Reimagining [professional] development as ‘fostering imagination’ around central values, not just offering tools and strategies.

The professional and the community development we need most urgently is to talk with students about what they need and want and find ways to collectively imagine how those diverse wants and needs fit together into a coherent whole.  There’s no technology, no system, no model—no cop shit—that will do this for us, even if the rhetoric, the sales pitches, the educelebrities and brands, and some of our instincts tell us otherwise.  This is why focusing development and conversation around uses of strategies means that our work is necessarily incomplete.  Let’s return to Press Press’ manifesto:

We can protect sanctuary by creating a pluralistic social contract of values and ideas to which we all agree. We can protect sanctuary by sharing responsibility to sustain the things we value.

Skyline Writing Center’s Summer Circles

This summer, the Skyline Writing Center has held a series of “Summer Circles,” modeled from the critical care practices that we use during our in-person meetings to build community and talk about issues that are important and figure out how we, in our space, can address them while also becoming comfortable with tension and discomfort both generally and within our group, which is remarkably diverse in all facets, especially since the likelihood of a virtual fall start were always high.  This necessitated asking some big questions—and being asked some big questions of me and the institution—to start:

Summer Circle #1 - Norms_Questions_Reflections

Summer Circle #1 - Norms_Questions_Reflections-3

These discussions have been interesting and iterative, and they’ve covered a ton of ground, ground that I didn’t think we’d necessarily cover.  But with a group of students, some writing center veterans and some newcomers, and an open conversation, we’ve been able to imaginatively co-plan large parts of the year together, most notably how to meaningfully care for and stay connected and engaged while apart.  Truthfully, we haven’t even talked about numbers or training or pedagogy or the LMS, and those conversations seem far off still. My concern isn’t whether we’ll do 1 session or 1,000 sessions.

I never expected 15, even 20, students to show up during their summer break to talk about writing center, but you never know until you create the conditions.  And, really, that’s the point: as a white, cishet, neurotypical, able-bodied male, I can’t create the sanctuary for my students anymore than I can liberate my students, but I can remove the barriers, help create the conditions, and be a co-equal part of the discussion that helps us ensure a safe, comforting, responsive environment for each student, whatever that means for them.

There’s no magic here, really, but a reminder: create a space, let students talk, listen, and use their experiences to build an environment and community that works for each person in the community.